16/3/2014

How a Scientist’s Mind Works

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:55 am

Alex, Peter and I were walking our dog, Buffy, yesterday. She likes to run to places where there are dogs on the other side of the fence, and then run with them, greet them or start a fight. She’s not allowed, and she’s being trained out of it, but – although we walk miles in all directions on a wide range of routes – she remembers every such fence, and starts sneaking away from us and toward it, well ahead of time.

I said to Alex and Peter “She must have amazing spatial memory, because even on walks she’s only been on once, she remembers where all the ‘dog fences’ are”. I didn’t say anything to them at the time, but did think to myself “Either that, or perhaps she smells something from the dogs as we get close…”

Later in the same walk – 2-3 km later – she also ran toward a path that we needed to take, that she had only been along once, and in the opposite direction. She did this before we knew where the start of the path was.

There’s no scent clue from a dog for the path, so that challenges the ‘smell’ hypothesis and supports the ‘spatial memory’ hypothesis. Her spatial memory may, of course, include a lot more scent clues, rather than being almost exclusively visual like ours…

So, automatically creating and testing hypotheses and seeking confirming and disconfirming evidence, even when just taking the dog for a walk. It’s how a scientist rolls.

2 responses to “How a Scientist’s Mind Works”

  1. Harry K says:

    Don’t discount the scent hypothesis.

    Their olfactory bulb is massive in comparison to their visual centres. Dominant dogs are also known to re-mark objects that have been scented so in week later a whole series of dogs could have left wee-mails in that same spot. It’s even been suggested that dogs love to hang their heads of windows because then they just get smashed with smells because they live in a scent world while we can enjoy the visual scenery from the safety of being inside the car. We live in two different perceptual worlds.

    Having said that, it still does make evolutionary sense for dogs to have an excellent visual memory of scented landmarks.

  2. Mark says:

    To do a proper experiment you’d probably need a controlled environment. If you could be sure that in certain areas there were no scents the dog was likely to be picking up, that would help.

    Another thing that occurred to me is wind direction. Does the behaviour change if the wind is behind you? If the dog more tentative? Or are all the smells close to the ground and thus less affected by direction?

    Is there a way to cancel the sense of smell in a dog? If such a technique exists, that might get some interesting results.

    Thanks for an intriguing challenge, Dave.

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